Last week, markets were in a steep sell-off, driven largely by increasing worries about global economic growth. (See the above-linked Reuters article from last week.) In the wake of the Great Recession, years of interest rates at zero and money printing by the central banks of the U.S., Europe and Japan have yielded pretty disappointing results. Europe is once again on the brink of recession. And Japan has either been in recession or been on the brink for decades. And slowing economic data in the U.S. is making it look as though we won’t avoid backsliding into recession either.
We’ve all seen cartoons depicting pessimists standing on street corners wearing sandwich-board signs declaring that “the end is near.” Well, folks, it’s time to face facts. When it comes to economic growth, the end is, in fact, here.
Let’s begin with a step back – way back – to World War II. The imperialist ambitions of both Germany and Japan had similar roots. Both nations were badly overpopulated, short on resources and long on unemployment. Both embarked on huge land grabs. In the wake of the war, in 1947, the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – the precursor of today’s World Trade Organization – was implemented, with the primary goal of preventing such wars by giving Germany and Japan easier access to resources and more access to U.S. markets, thus alleviating the high unemployment that fostered Hitler’s rise to power.
No problem, at first. Americans had done without for years, with the nation’s manufacturing capacity devoted 100% to the war effort. There was a lot of catching up to do and Americans’ appetite for goods seemed insatiable. The economy boomed and the federal government was able to cut spending and whittle away the debt it had racked up during the war.
The infrastructure and economies of Germany and Japan were rebuilt. Slowly, the new trade regime enabled imports from those nations to erode America’s trade surplus. First came Volkswagens and a sprinkling of Mercedes and BMW’s from Germany. Those were followed first by motorcycles from Japan, and then Hondas – pathetic little cars that were painted in paisley and sold as jokes, but they got their foot in the door. By the early 70’s our trade surplus was gone. We oscillated between surplus and deficit for a few years. We ran our last trade surplus in 1975. Since then, we’ve experienced 38 (soon to be 39) consecutive years of trade deficits.
At about the same time, America’s budget deficit began to grow again too. It had to, to offset the trade deficit’s drain of money from the economy. Soon, new terms began to creep into the American economic lexicon: “redundancy,” “down-sizing,” “right-sizing” and “outsourcing.” American manufacturers began closing their doors en masse, unable to sustain a profit margin in the face of the onslaught of foreign companies snatching up American market share.
Even with their new-found trade surpluses and manufacturing jobs cannibalized from American manufacturers, the Europeans and Japanese both found it necessary to lean heavily on deficit spending, just as America was doing, to keep a lid on unemployment. Rising productivity enabled manufacturers to meet growing demand without growing employment at the same pace.
At the end of World War II, the world’s population stood at just under 2.5 billion. Today it has nearly tripled. All of this growth has been concentrated in urban areas. Cities have expanded and grown vastly more crowded, and it’s a fact that people living in crowded conditions consume less out of necessity. Growth in the global labor pool outpaced the rate at which workers were absorbed into the economy, putting downward pressure on wages. And that situation grew exponentially worse when China was factored into the global trade equation, growing the global labor pool virtually overnight by 25%.
For a time, government deficit spending, used primarily to fund social safety net programs and other programs designed to supplement incomes and prop up a perception of wealth, sustained consumption and kept the economy growing. But that tactic has run its course. National debts have risen to worrisome levels.
Developed economies looked to China to pick up the slack by developing its economy, turning 1.3 billion people who had nothing into western-style consumers. By that measure, China has been a huge disappointment. Collectively, they consume a mountain of goods, but nowhere near enough to even consume their own productive capacity, much less to develop into a market for other nations. Their growth is faltering and it looks like their domestic consumption will settle at the same diminished level as Europe and Japan.
Growth is now virtually dead and all the deficit spending in the world can’t prop it up. Economists won’t admit that fact and adamantly refuse to give any consideration to the fact that population growth lies at the heart of the problem. But markets don’t care, and what we’re witnessing is an adjustment to a no-growth world. Interest rates have fallen to zero. Bond yields, projected to rise as the economy “recovered” never did, and are now sliding backward to near-zero levels. Central banks’ hands are tied, left only with thinly-disguised money printing programs to fall back on to provide stimulus to the economy, a tactic that’s already begun to make them nervous about unintended consequences.
The world’s economy is reaching a critical and dangerous point, where the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption begins to take hold in a big way that can trigger an irreversible downward spiral. People consume less than they’d like for two reasons – because they lack space to make use of products, and because they are simply too poor to afford them. When the proportion of people in the first condition reaches a critical level, the downward pressure on wages begins to make everyone poorer, accelerating the downward pressure on consumption. Governments’ and central banks’ resources and abilities to hold this economic force at bay will soon be exhausted.
Economists had better extract their heads from that place where the sun doesn’t shine, and soon, if this economic fate that they don’t understand and are unable to see is to be avoided. I fear that they won’t. Growth isn’t always desirable. Sometimes it’s cancerous. Left unchecked, population growth will soon present the one challenge that none of them are clever enough to overcome – worsening poverty that gets so bad that it throws the world population into decline. In essence, if economists and world leaders aren’t smart enough to manage our population to a level where all can enjoy a high quality of life, their stupidity will surely drive it to a level that no one wants.